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'Mad Men' set decorator searches for period furniture in Pasadena area stores

Amy Wells knows where to find good deals and the right period decor.

August 08, 2009|David A. Keeps

Creating the pitch-perfect period interiors for the 1960s drama "Mad Men," a show with a devoted following of design enthusiasts, is a daunting task. The AMC series, which begins its third season Aug. 16, has set scenes not only in a Madison Avenue advertising firm but also in Brooklyn, upstate New York and Palm Springs, requiring dozens of rooms to look Manhattan swank and suburban traditional. It's enough to drive set decorator Amy Wells loopy.

"I definitely have loops that I travel when I am shopping for the show," said Wells, who lives in South Pasadena and took along The Times as she made the rounds on one of her secondhand shopping circuits.

"Pasadena has the creme de la creme of used furniture stores on this part of the planet," she said.

After bypassing an Out of the Closet thrift shop on South Fair Oaks Avenue in South Pasadena, Wells headed a few blocks north to the Huntington Collection in Pasadena for its last-Saturday-of-the-month sale.

"They have automatic markdowns after a piece has been on the floor for four weeks," she said, "and the items that are sold on consignment often have a more life-well-lived look and are in exceptional condition. And don't forget to check the annex, which is almost all furniture."

Wells looks for furniture with good bones, drawers that slide out easily and upholstered pieces that are easy to re-cover.

"It doesn't have to be a familiar brand name to be quality," she said.

She avoids mass-market 1950s designs made from inferior materials.

"Even back then there were cheap, crappy things," she said. "That quality remains poor to this day."

She isn't put off by scratches and rings on furniture.

"Old wooden furniture, particularly American walnut and Scandinavian teak, is so forgiving," said Wells, who swears by an oil-based rub-on and wipe-off product called Restor-A-Finish sold at hardware stores and antique centers.

Second stop: Pasadena Antique Center, also on South Fair Oaks, which she recommends for traditional styles and more upscale refinished pieces.

"They have everything from Victorian to Art Deco, Hollywood Regency and Palm Springs modern," Wells said.

The sprawling two-story building is filled with dealer booths. Among Wells' favorites: Now/Again for ornate furniture, MJH Design Arts for Baroque and neoclassical antiques, Jack W. Smith for Art Deco, the Modern Zoo and Vintage Vintage! Vintage! for midcentury modern. She credits Bonita Interiors with providing many of the traditional and lacquered pieces used in the "Mad Men" living room of lead character Don Draper.

Wells loves lamps, particularly in pairs, and has found many at the Pasadena Antique Center. If they need rewiring or a new shade, her go-to resource is Practical Props in North Hollywood.

For unusual art and garden pieces she shops at T.L. Gurley, and for Arts and Crafts and early 20th century furnishings she visits Revival Antiques, both in the 500 block of South Fair Oaks.

The loop almost always includes a quick detour to the Salvation Army Antique Thrift Store just off Fair Oaks at 35 W. Waverly Drive in Pasadena. "Not so much for furniture," Wells said, "but they have great dishes, glasses, framed artwork and old board games."

The set decorator recommends Eastern Oriental Rugs in Pasadena for period floor coverings, which can be difficult to find. "Used and new, it has everything," she said of the Colorado Boulevard shop. On this shopping trip, however, she was searching for old-fashioned braided rugs.

"I know of a secret pile buried at the back of Mission Antiques," she said. The store is part of a strip of Americana dealers on Mission Street in South Pasadena, where Wells also shops for fine Colonial and Federal furniture at Thomas R. Field and vintage draperies, vanity table items and knickknacks at Hodgson Antiques.

Crammed to the rafters, Mission Antiques is a barely navigable repository of toasters, tea tables and other home goods. Sure enough, Wells dug her way back to a box full of rugs but had to go outside the cluttered shop to unroll and inspect them on the sidewalk.

The secret of secondhand shopping, Wells said, is sifting through the junk.

"There are great things surrounded by horrible things, so you have to go through and look at things slowly without getting distracted by other stuff," she said. "You have to do the editing." The upside: Prices tend to be lower in overcrowded stores, and with so much stock, it may be easier to negotiate pricing.

"I try not to make a store owner defensive by saying this is too much," Wells said. "I always ask, 'What's your best price?' It sounds much more positive."

It worked that day. Wells bagged two large oval vintage braided rag rugs for less than $350.




'Mad Men' style

"Mad Men" set decorator Amy Wells' favorites for used furnishings:

Pasadena/ South Pasadena

The Huntington Collection: 766 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 535-2468; Check out the last-Saturday-of-the-month sale.

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